Disclaimer: Before reading the following blog, I ask you to keep in mind that each person and their nutrition needs are different. That is why I recommend that everyone takes a personalized approach to their diet. Nutrition needs vary based on many things including age, biology, food preferences, current health status, current training, religion, budget, body composition and future goals. That being said, here are some nutrition tips for athletes to get you started!
By: 2020 Headsweats Ambassador, Taylor Lawless
Us athletes love to push our limits. Yes, indeed, we are a strange breed of human that will wake up early on the weekend for a long run, or bike 50 miles “just for fun.” This desire to push our limits leaves us looking for new things to help us get ourselves to the next level. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I can tell you that your fueling strategies are vital for your performance. Unfortunately, athletes make common mistakes that keep them from doing their best. Here are the top 5 fueling mistakes made by athletes:
- Not taking nutrition seriously.
You might choose your foods based on what tastes good, but the taste is not the (only) purpose of food. Food is fuel. And that fuel is an integral part of your training and recovery process, whether or not you are thinking about your food choices.
Think about your body as if it were a car. Imagine if you didn't put gas in your car. What would happen? It would break down and you would be stuck on the side of the road. Calories are the gas for your body. Calories are the energy that keeps you moving.
Now think about a car again. Let’s just say you remember to put gas in your car, but forget to do routine maintenance, like changing the oil or rotating the tires. Sure, your car can keep going quite a long time without doing those things, but eventually, the car would give out and you would end up on the side of the road again. Cars that get regular maintenance run better and last longer.
So, if calories are the gas, then what counts as “maintenance” for the body? Basically, things like getting the right micronutrients, hydrating well, and timing your meals right are what will make you stronger and faster if you are already getting enough calories.
America is bombarded with messages from the diet culture and weight-loss ads. This makes sense, as more than half of our population is overweight or obese. However, many athletes with high physical activity levels also take in this information. The health-conscious athletes often end up choosing “diet foods” or adopting habits that are geared towards weight loss because that is the most prevalent nutrition information out there.
It is totally normal for an athlete to want to be lean, especially for sports like running, cycling, dancing, or gymnastics where being lean is an advantage. However, competitive athletes need to understand that they need more fuel than most people because not only are athletes fueling their body through day to day life, they are also pushing through workouts that are often very brutal. And by “brutal,” I mean “burns a ton of calories.”
I have fallen prey to under-fueling, and my running suffered. The time that sticks out to me most, was during my senior year of college when I lived by a really great Greenway where I would do my long run. My usual lunch was pretty light: I had hard-boiled eggs with cut up veggies and hummus or a can of soup. As you may have guessed, I was trying to stay lean and on budget. Well, I stayed lean, but every time I tried to do my long run, I burned out halfway through. I was able to fix the problem by adding some carbs like bread or crackers to those meals. My mid-run fatigue disappeared and I was faster! I just needed some more fuel to get me through. And no, my weight did not go up even though I was eating more.
So, my athletes, while under-fueling may keep you lean, it will also make you slower, decrease your ability to recover, and limit the gainzzzz you get from your workout. You can most definitely be well fueled and lean if you are eating the right foods.
- Taking too many supplements.
People looooove to take supplements. Why? Because supplement companies are SO GOOD at marketing. By “supplements” I am referring to a wide range of things including vitamins, minerals, protein drinks and powders, electrolytes, herbal products, BCAAs... the list goes on and on! It is easy to end up with a cupboard full of things that you take every now and then, that may or may not benefit you.
I am not against supplements, on the contrary, I think that certain supplements can enhance your nutrition status and performance greatly. However, I first encourage you to start by making sure that you have a good diet full of whole foods. Second, make sure that you have valid reasons for taking your supplements. And lastly, choose supplements from reliable companies. What you put in your body does matter.
Before you start taking any supplement, ask yourself WHY you are taking it. If you are low in something, like vitamin D or vitamin B12, then that is a good reason to take it. If you are trying to accomplish a specific goal like “get more protein to build more muscle,” but don’t want to eat more meat, then a protein supplement might be good for you. If you are taking something because your favorite influencer who has no nutrition training says that “it’s super awesome, gives you abs, and is yummy” then wait. Keep in mind that certain herbal supplements, vitamins, and minerals can interact with medications. Some can also cause your blood levels to go too high, which can be dangerous. Do some research or talk to a nutrition professional, like a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, before adding random supplements to your diet.
- Bad timing.
Have you ever eaten too much Mexican food or fried food before you run? Let’s just say that the results are uncomfortable. Unless you want to break up your workout with pit stops, then learn to time your meals better.
Many people can handle greasy foods, high fiber foods, and big meals if they aren't working out for a few hours because they have plenty of time to digest. However, if they eat those things the hour before their workout, then they are going to have cramping, nausea, and maybe even diarrhea. Not fun.
The closer you get to your workout, the easier to digest foods that you will want to choose. Things like a banana, a rice cake with peanut butter, dry fruit, toast, crackers, or a sports drink are all good choices if you are working out within the next hour.
So, before you scarf down that free slice of pizza at your work meeting 30 minutes before your evening run, think about it... You don’t necessarily have to put the pizza down, just take it home for after your workout ;)
- Poor hydration.
Hydration matters. One study, in particular, showed that as little as a 2% decrease in your hydration status can make you run the same race slower. In a 5k, that might mean seconds up to a minute, in a longer race that could mean literal minutes. To a non-athlete that timing doesn’t sound like much, but to a competitive runner or endurance athlete, that is the difference between first place and not placing at all!
You have probably heard the good old water recommendation “drink 8 8oz glasses per day.” That is an ok start, but that guideline is for the average sized sedentary adult. Athletes often need significantly more than this, especially with extreme outdoor temperatures. Of course, there are many individual factors too. For instance, larger athletes need more water than smaller athletes, and sweaty athletes will also require more fluids than those ones that never seem to sweat...
So how do you avoid dehydration? Start by drinking water throughout the day. Have a glass as soon as you get out of bed and keep a water bottle with you at all times. Be sure to actually drink it and to refill it when it is empty. Repeat until bedtime.
The signs of dehydration to look out for include headache, fatigue, muscle cramps, and dark urine. You want your pee to be clear or pale yellow. Remember that you can get water from food as well. Foods like soups, fresh fruits and vegetables, gelatins, smoothies, popsicles, and sauces have a lot of water in them. The fluids in your food count towards your fluid goals.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to share with your workout buddies. If you can avoid these 5 common mistakes, then you are on your way to being a happier, healthier, stronger athlete. Ready, set, sweat!
Did you have a chance to see my latest LIVE Interview on Instagram? You can still check it out on our Instagram or find it on the Headsweats Youtube channel. Don’t miss all the awesome tips and tricks I share AND take advantage of the Ultima Replenisher discount offered! Use code: HS20 at checkout to receive 20% OFF your next purchase of any Ultima Replenisher products. Don’t wait to take advantage of this offer: https://www.ultimareplenisher.com/discount/HS20
Taylor Lawless is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (CSO). She wears many hats, Headsweats included. By day she works for a cancer center where she helps people fuel through their cancer journeys. By night she is a writer and works with cross country runners to help them fuel their PRs. You can find her first children's book “The Fun Run” on Amazon. For more nutrition tips you can follow her on Instagram @theXCRD and check out her website is www.theXCRD.com